3,000-year-old Gold Funeral Mask Illuminates Yellow River Civilization

A 3000-year-old gold funeral mask dated to the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC) has been unearthed by archaeologists on the Yellow River about 600 kilometers (373 miles) northwest of Shanghai. Found in an ancient noble’s tomb in Zhengzhou, the mask was not the only find – several other relics and artifacts (more than 200 in total) from the Shang dynasty were found as well, shedding light on rituals around the death ceremony and burial.

The gold mask weighs around 40 grams and measures 18.3 x 14.5 centimeters (7.2 x 5.7 inches) – large enough to cover an adult’s face. Together these rare discoveries at Zhengzhou reveal that the Shang people had a strong gold culture, further expanding our understanding of the ancient and mysterious culture.

The ancient Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC) wall that once surround the Zhengzhou Shangdu site, where the rare gold funeral mask was recently unearthed. (Robinlun / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The ancient Shang dynasty ( 1600-1046 BC ) wall that once surround the Zhengzhou Shangdu site, where the rare gold funeral mask was recently unearthed. (Robinlun / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

A Yellow River Melting Pot and a Unique Gold Funeral Mask

Dating back to the early stages of Chinese civilization, the Zhengzhou Shangdu site is one of the world’s first melting pots, as revealed at a press conference on Friday. Another press release by the Chinese National Cultural Heritage Administration explained that the ancient city had great influence along the middle sections of the Yellow River , reported state news agency Xinhua.

“There has been a saying about bubaijinshen, or an imperishable gold body, since ancient times in China. [The gold funeral mask] proves that the concept had existed since the Shang dynasty,” said Gu Wanfa, Director of the Zhengzhou Municipal Research Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology. Quoted by Henan Broadcasting System, Gu further explained the distinction between the gold masks of Sanxingdui and the current find, stating that the Zhengzhou Shangdu mask covered the entire face so the “ spirits could remain whole.”

The Zhengzhou Shangdu gold mask is large enough to cover a dead persons entire face and thus keep the dead person’s spirit whole. (Xinhua)

The Zhengzhou Shangdu gold mask is large enough to cover a dead persons entire face and thus keep the dead person’s spirit whole. ( Xinhua)

Other Zhengzhou Shangdu Finds and Early Chinese Civilization

The Zhengzhou Shangdu tomb site of the Shang Dynasty noble was a giant art gallery that was 10,000 square meters (107,640 square feet) in size. It contained a diverse array of burial objects, all of the highest quality, reported the Global Times .

There were a number of bronze and jade ware artifacts and weaponry, but it was the gold funeral mask that really stood out. Other gold items found in the tomb included leaves and plaques inlaid with turquoise, and gold shell coins (metal imitations of earlier cowrie shell money ).

Chen Lüsheng, a famous museologist and researcher with the National Museum of China, speculated that these finds are likely to shed new light on the origins of Chinese civilization. “Although this gold mask is older than those unearthed from the Sanxingdui Ruins, we still need more evidence and a larger amount of archaeological discoveries to confirm a direct connection between the Shang City ruins and the Sanxingdui Ruins,” Chen said.

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Eleven archaeological projects and 200 successful excavations, under the aegis of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, have been in motion since 2018 to develop an even better understanding of the earliest stages of Chinese civilization. Notable sites include the Erlitou Ruins of Yanshi, dated to 3,500-3,600 years ago, and the Bicun ruins of north China’s Shanxi province , from 3,700-4,000 years ago.

These 200 archaeological projects are almost all centered in the regions surrounding the Yellow River, often seen as the birthplace of Chinese civilization. However, some Western observers feel that China’s ultimate goal is to prove it’s the birthplace of civilization in general.

Last month, it was revealed by the National Cultural Heritage Administration that 1,800 cultural relics taken overseas had been returned to China over the previous decade.

Archaeologists like Gu have important questions that only further research will answer. If the gold funeral mask was made locally, where did the gold come from? Did the locally made masks then spread further southwest? Did the Shang culture have any common linkages with the much later Sanxingdui ruins and the Shu dynasty?

And if gold was exchanged with other cultures, it raises the question of long-distance trade with other civilizations. So, the Zhengzhou Shangdu gold funeral mask is rare and amazing and can tell us more about funerary customs, society, and trade in Shang dynasty China.

Top image: The rare, gold Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC ) funeral mask recently recovered from a noble’s tomb at Zhengzhou, China. Source: Xinhua

By Sahir Pandey


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